Activist Pam Palmater recalls 1st time she stood up for her rights

09/20/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:02 EDT
Pam Palmater is one of Canada's most outspoken indigenous voices. A proud Mi'kmaq lawyer, professor, and Idle No More organizer, she lives and breathes advocacy.

But back when she was a shy kid in elementary school, with 11 loud, passionate, and political siblings, it was a different story.

"While some kids were playing on the playground, I was sitting under tables or sitting very nervously beside one of my brothers while he was yelling passionately [about] what treaty rights were at certain government officials," recalls Palmater.

- DNTO: Taking a stand … and being heard

- Visit CBC Aboriginal for more stories

At the age of seven, she was having a difficult time grasping what politics were and what advocacy meant. But her older siblings were determined to get her on board.

Her brother explained that "one of the ways in which I could help them advance this cause was to not stand up for O Canada," she recalled.

The proposal made her worried and uneasy. Was her brother actually going to show up at her school the next day to make sure she followed through?

She thought she was off the hook the next morning … until her brother walked in.

"Then I knew that he meant what he said and this was actually going to happen," she said.

"He spoke to my teacher and proceeded to explain that I would not be standing for O Canada that day and that the reason why was he wanted Canada to respect our treaties and return our land, and until that happened I was going to  defend the rights of the Mi’kmaq nation," said Palmater.

"I couldn’t even hold my head up. It was too hard for me to look around. I was red in the face. It was very quiet."

Then the anthem started playing.

"At that moment I was … embarrassed and terrified, but at the same time I love and trust my brother and I know that the things that he says are critically important for who I was, for my family, even though I didn't know exactly why … I decided that the way for me to stand up was to sit down during O Canada."

Sometimes when Palmater tells this story, people ask her if it's really appropriate that older siblings enlist their younger siblings like this.

Her response is always this: "There's no one on the face of this planet that knows everything there is to know about an issue, and most of us don't understand many of the … politically, legally and socially complex issues we hear everyday in the media.

"But that in and of itself is not a justification of not acting," she added. "If you have a sense of justice, you can still stand up, you can ask questions. Because if the bar is that you need to always understand everything and know everything, then none of us would be able to advocate for anything."

Pam Palmater is the chair of Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University. And to this day, she still takes a stand by sitting down for O Canada. Her book, Beyond Blood, is on shelves now. 

Hear Pam's story on DNTO​ this Saturday, Sept. 20, at 1:30 pm on CBC Radio One. To mark the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, DNTO will feature incredible stories of moments that inspire us to stand up and fight for our rights.